Infernal advice

My dear Wormwood,
…About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything–even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game,
            Your affectionate uncle,

The quotation “Only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations” is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Harper & Bros, 1934). The work is, of course, noxious, but undoubtedly still popular in some circles. Unfortunately there’s much more; it reads like a charicature, really. But I do wonder if Niebuhr ever learned of this quotation having been placed by Lewis, entirely appropriately, in the mouth of a demon. Such a fitting antitribute! Lewis managed to peg Niebuhr, in this case, as one batting for t’other team.

Know your enemy!

13 Replies to “Infernal advice”

  1. Oh, my. I hadn’t read that, Mike. That’s hilarious! This post and that article really make a pair. What a delightfully cynical coincidence!

    In case anyone thinks to ask my opinions on politics and politicians, my default position is summed up by this old saw:
    “How do you know a politician’s lying? His lips are moving.”

  2. Lewis, of course, is also famous for being charitable toward liberal Christians as a class while opposing in particular their style of apologetics. Quite an accomplishment, from a superb apologist for the faith.

  3. I’ll really have to read more of Lewis. Outside of Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, I have a collected works volume to go through, and (which one I’m really looking forward to) his Allegory of Love. He really lived in a different world. He wouldn’t recognize his own church, today.

  4. If you’re at all interested it Lewis the man, and his personal faith, you must read A Grief Observed. I’ve struggled unsuccessfully for a while for the right superlative adjective for it, but superlative it is, although that’s a dreadfully bloodless and dry characterization of the little journal.

  5. I forgot to mention that I have read and very much enjoyed Lewis’ fiction, namely the Space Trilogy: That Hideous Strength, Perelandra, and Out of the Silent Planet, and the Narnia books, of course. I was thinking more of his apologetic stuff above that I’ll need to read more of. His Allegory of Love, his scholarly book on love in medieval literature, in the bits I’ve read of it, displays an easy, didactic mastery. The man was an excellent teacher when he hit his stride.

  6. So I was just re-reading Screwtape for the first time since high school, googled the Niebuhr quote to find out the source, and discovered this post was like the first result or something! Funny coincidence!

    By the way, I see this was a while back, but if you haven’t yet you should really read ‘The Discarded Image’, Lewis’s lectures introducing mediaeval and renaissance literature, and his ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’. They are both gems!

  7. Well, that’s fun! I tend to find those Google hits that end up being myself pretty annoying, since I’m usually looking for something I don’t already know, of course. They are kind of fun, though.

    And thanks, Aaron, I’ll add those titles to the list!

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